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Oklahoma's gambling addicts put life on line for big win

Serious gambling can begin innocently. Between 35,000 and 105,000 pathological gamblers live in Oklahoma, experts say. People accessing state-sponsored gambling treatment services has grown about 150 percent from 2007 (139 clients) to 2011 (347 clients).
BY SONYA COLBERG Published: August 21, 2011

While he stole a million dollars from Oklahoma schools and gambled most of it away, Roger Q. Melson couldn't imagine one day wearing a gray uniform stamped with “inmate” and scrubbing toilets for $7.50 a month.

Everyone thought for years that he was just a lucky gambler.

“It was really tearing me up,” Melson said, sobbing into a prison phone.

“I kept telling myself I would finally hit the big one — whatever that is — and it would take care of everything.”

Then he decided something really could take care of his lies and the hurt he caused others. He met a man in the parking lot at his workplace at the Commissioners of the Land Office to buy a gun.

“I was going to kill myself ... when I was caught,” he said.

Months before a grand jury in June 2009 handed down a 174-count indictment for embezzlement, to which he later pleaded guilty, the former state-employed auditor chose not to join the 13 percent of Gamblers Anonymous members who try suicide.

He confessed to one of his sons that he'd embezzled and gambled for years. He mentioned the gun and handed it over to his son.

Melson, 57, is one of the estimated 35,000 to 105,000 pathological gamblers living in Oklahoma. In 2004, voters authorized gaming at racetracks and expanded gambling at tribal casinos, as well as the state lottery, to help fund education. The number of people accessing state-sponsored gambling treatment services has grown about 150 percent from 2007 (139 clients) to 2011 (347 clients).

“It's a brain disorder. What happens is people really do get hooked on gambling. People who don't understand it underestimate the strength of it,” said David Swope, Nationally Certified Gambling Counselor and Licensed Professional Counselor.

“I've heard stories of people so engrossed in gambling they wore diapers. They didn't want to leave the machine.”

Innocent roots

People sometimes get into serious gambling by innocently joining friends at a casino, said Jo Ann Pearce, A Chance to Change Foundation executive director.

The innocent roots of Michelle's gambling addiction began at age 16 in a sweaty gym in El Reno, where she first joined her mother to play bingo.

Her addiction was sealed with a kiss at age 26. She married her second husband, a heavy gambler, and after the ceremony, they went straight to a casino. “We didn't leave for our honeymoon until two days later,” she said.

She picked up almost $1,000 for their honeymoon — and an addiction she's still fighting at age 38.

She once found a MegaMania machine with a glitch that kept giving money back. At one point, she put her children in day care and treated her machine playing as a job, devoting eight to 10 hours a day to it until the casino fixed the gusher.

“It's like giving a cocaine addict an endless supply of cocaine,” said Michelle, who asked that her last name not be used.

Swope said a big win can be like crack cocaine to a problem gambler.

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Gambling Addiction — Did you know? People Accessing State-Sponsored Treatment Services 2007 — 139 2008 — 243 2009 — 331 2010 — 309 2011 — 347 There have been almost 18,300 calls made to Oklahoma's Problem Gambling Helpline since 2007. The Problem and Compulsive Gambling Helpline: 800-522-4700 For more gambling treatment options, go to $7 billion — Last year's estimated social cost to families and communities from gambling-related bankruptcy, divorce, crime and job loss. 48 percent — Gamblers Anonymous members who considered suicide. 57 percent — Gamblers Anonymous members who admitted stealing to finance their gambling. 85 percent — Approximate percentage of adults in the United States who have gambled at least once. 60 percent — Approximate percentage of US adults who gambled within the last year. 100 percent — The presence of a gambling facility within 50 miles roughly doubles the prevalence of problem and pathological gamblers. Number 5 — Oklahoma's ranking among states with the most casinos. More than 80 — Tribal casinos in Oklahoma, three Oklahoma racetrack casinos and the statewide lottery. About 60 — Number of casinos each in Canada, England and Central America. About 50 — Number of casinos in both France and Germany. About 13 — Number of casinos in Australia. Problem gamblers also: Have high rates of co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders. SOURCES: OKLAHOMA DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE SERVICES; NATIONAL COUNCIL ON PROBLEM AND COMPULSIVE GAMBLING; OKLAHOMA ASSOCIATION OF GAMBLING ADDICTION AWARENESS; NATIONAL GAMBLING IMPACT STUDY COMMISSION REPORT.

Gambling: When is it a problem? What: A free problem gambling workshop When: 4 to 5:30 p.m., Aug. 27 Where: Wickline United Methodist Church 417 Mid-America Blvd., Midwest City Program: Understanding problem gambling Stories of recovery How to find help Reservations required by Aug. 25: or call Emily White at 840-9000. For a confidential evaluation, call 840-9000. Sponsor: A Chance to Change Foundation, an organization with a gambling program contracted through the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

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